Vygotsky 1934

The Problem of Consciousness

Source: Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Volume III, Part 1: Problems of the Theory and Methods of Psychology, Chapter 9: The Problem of Consciousness, pp 129-138;
First Published: in The Psychology of Grammar, Moscow 1968;
Not published during Vygotsky’s life. Based on material found in A. N. Leont'ev’s private archives.

Foreword by A A Leont'ev from “The Psychology of Grammar,” Moscow 1968.

The notes of Vygotsky’s talks are published on the basis of the manuscript copybooks preserved in the archives of A. N. Leont'ev. In these notebooks the main text is written on the right (odd) pages, while the insertions and additions which were particularly made by Zaporozhec are on the opposite left (even) pages. All notes (except for some that we ignored as they were obviously added later and only summarized what Vygotsky said in more modern wordings) were written with a pen.

Naturally, in our publication we first of all made use of the basic text. It is supplemented with the corresponding insertions from the even pages of the notebooks, which are given in angle brackets < > . We did not cut the material. Following the original, halfway through the notes we added the notes of Vygotsky’s speech on the occasion of Luria’s talk, which according to its theme corresponds to the specific part of the talk “The problem of consciousness.”

All highlightings in the manuscript made by A. N. Leont'ev have been preserved.

All parentheses and square brackets belong to the original. The passages in quotation marks are direct quotes from Vygotsky’s oral speech. In the published excerpt from the record of Vygotsky’s speech about the theses for the debates in 1933-1934, we have followed the same principles with the only difference being that between the angle brackets are given the insertions made with the same ink by A. N. Leont'ev himself.


Toward the end of the twenties, a small group of young psychologists had gathered around Vygotsky and began to work under his guidance. Apart from the discussions of scientific problems that were systematically conducted at the meetings of the department and the laboratory where we carried out our investigations at the time and during private talks, Vygotsky now and then gathered his closest collaborators and students in meetings which we called internal conferences. Their purpose was to theoretically think through what had been accomplished, to discuss problems that had arisen in the discussions, to plan future work. Usually such internal conferences proceeded in the form of a free exchange of opinions about the issues that had been raised; in other cases we listened to and discussed full-blown talks especially prepared for the occasion. No minutes were taken in either the first or the second case. For that reason only some of Vygotsky’s presentations have been preserved in the personal notes of the participants in these conferences.

The notes of Vygotsky’s talk relate to the moment when the inner necessity arose to sum up the results of the investigations of the higher mental processes thus far carried out from the perspective of the theory of human consciousness, to present an analysis of its inner structure. This talk, which was written down by me in a very condensed thesis-like form, rested on an overview of many investigations carried out under the supervision of Vygotsky and with his participation. Therefore, its exposition by the author took tremendous time – with a pause of approximately two hours it lasted more than seven hours, and another day was devoted to its discussion.

As far as I remember, apart from Leont'ev and Luria in this internal conference Bozhovic, Zaporozhec, Levina, Morozova and Slavina also participated.

Some clarification is required about the notes of Vygotsky’s talk at the internal conference where the problem of the theses was discussed which had been prepared for a public debate about the works of Vygotsky and his school. Such a debate was expected in 1933 or 1934, but before Vygotsky’s death it did not take place. What was left was the unfinished and provisional work prepared for this debate. The published fragments of the notes concern only those questions which coincide with those raised in his talk about the problem of consciousness.

1. Introduction

Psychology has defined itself as the science of consciousness, but about consciousness psychology hardly knew anything.

The statement of the problem in the older psychology. Lipps, for example: “unconsciousness is the problem of psychology.” The problem of consciousness was stated outside, before psychology.

In descriptive psychology: in contrast to the subject of natural sciences, phenomenon and being coincide. That is why psychology is a speculative science. But since in the experience of consciousness only fragments of consciousness are given, the study of consciousness as a whole is impossible for the investigator.

We know a number of formal laws for consciousness: the uninterrupted nature of consciousness, the relative clarity of consciousness, the unity of consciousness, the identity of consciousness, the stream of consciousness.

The theory of consciousness in classic psychology. Two basic ideas about consciousness.

The first idea. Consciousness is regarded as something nonspatial in comparison to the mental functions, as some mental space (for example, Jaspers: consciousness as the stage on which a drama is being performed; in psychopathology we correspondingly also distinguish two basic cases: either the action is disturbed, or the stage itself). According to this idea, consciousness (as every other space) thus has no qualitative characteristics. That is why the science of consciousness is presented as the science of ideal relations (Husserl’s geometry, Dilthey’s “geometry of the spirit”).

The second idea. Consciousness is some intrinsic general quality of all psychological processes. This quality can therefore be discounted, not taken into account. In this idea as well, consciousness is presented as something which is nonqualitative, nonspatial, immutable, not developing.

Psychology’s sterility was caused by the fact that the problem of consciousness was not yet worked out.”

The most important problem. [Consciousness was now considered as a system of functions, now as a system of phenomena (Stumpf).]

< The problem of orientation points [in the history of psychology].

[Two basic viewpoints existed about the question of consciousness’ relation to the psychological functions]:

1. Functional systems. The prototype was faculty psychology. The idea of a mental organism possessing activities.

2. The psychology of emotional experience which studied the mirror image without studying the mirror (particularly obvious in association psychology, paradoxically Gestalt). The second (the psychology of emotional experience) (a) was never and could not be consistent, (b) always transferred the laws of one function to all others, etc.

[Questions that arise in this connection]:

1. The relation between activity and emotional experience (the problem of meaning).

2. The relation between functions. Can one function explain all others? (the system problem).

3. The relation between function and phenomenon (the problem of intentionality) > .

How did psychology understand the relation between the different activities of consciousness? (This problem was of minor importance; for us it is of paramount importance). Psychology answered this question with three postulates:

1. All activities of consciousness work together.

2. The link between the activities of consciousness does not essentially change these activities, for they are not necessarily connected, but only because they belong to one personality (“they have one boss”; James in a letter to Stumpf).

3. This link is accepted as a postulate but not as a problem < the connection between the functions is immutable > .

2. Our Main Hypothesis Presented from Outside

Our problem. The connection between the activities of consciousness is not constant. It is essential for each different activity. We must make this connection the problem of our research.

A remark. Our position is a position opposite to Gestaltpsychologie. Gestaltpsychologie “made a postulate out of the problem” – assumed in advance that each activity is structural; [for us the opposite is characteristic: we make a problem out of the postulate].

The connection between the activities – this is the central point in the study of each system.

A clarification. From the very beginning the problem of the connection must be opposed to the atomistic problem. Consciousness is primordially something unitary – this we postulate. Consciousness determines the fate of the system, just like the organism determines the fate of the functions. Each interfunctional change must be explained by a change of consciousness as a whole.

3. The Hypothesis “From Within” (From the Viewpoint of our Works)

(Introduction: the importance of the sign; its social meaning). In older works we ignored that the sign has meaning. < But there is “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Ecclesiastes). > We proceeded from the principle of the constancy of meaning, we discounted meaning. But the problem of meaning was already present in the older investigations. Whereas before our task was to demonstrate what “the knot” and logical memory have in common, now our task is to demonstrate the difference that exists between them.

From our works it follows that the sign changes the interfunctional relationships.

4. The Hypothesis “From Below’

The psychology of animals.

After Köhler began a new era in zoopsychology

Vagner’s conception: (1) development along pure and mixed lines; (2) ... (p. 38); (3) along pure lines – mutationist development; (4) along mixed lines – adaptive development; (5) ... (pp. 69-70).

Is the behavior of anthropoid apes human-like? Are Köhlers criteria for intelligence correct? The closed integral action in accordance with the structure of the field and the swallow ... The limited nature of the ape’s action is due to the fact that its actions are bound. For the ape things have no constant meaning. For the ape the stick does not become a tool, it does not have the meaning of a tool. The ape only “completes” the triangle, and that’s it. The same is true for Gibier’s dogs.

Conclusions that follow from this. Three levels. Conditional reflex activity is activity that elicits the instinct. The ape’s activity is instinctive as well, it is no more than an intellectual variation of the instinct, i.e., a new mechanism of the same activity. The ape’s intellect is the result of development along pure lines: the intellect has not yet restructured its consciousness.

(Köhler’s apologia in Selz.[1] In the new edition, Köhler remarks that Selz “is the only one who interpreted my experiments correctly” [pp. 675-677].)

In Koffka: “The deep similarity” of the ape’s behavior to human intellect; but a restriction as well: in the ape the action is elicited by the instinct and only the method used is rational. These actions are not voluntary. For will implies freedom from the situation (the sportsman stops competing when he sees that he has no chance of winning the competition).

Man wants the stick, the ape wants the fruit. < The ape does not want the tool. It does not prepare it for the future. For the ape it is a means to satisfy an instinctive wish. >

The tool. The tool requires abstraction from the situation. Tool use requires another type of stimulation and motivation. The tool is connected with meaning (of the object).

(Köhler) (Köhler wrote his work in a polemic with Thorndike).


1. In the animal world the appearance of new functions is connected with a change of the brain (according to Edinger’s formula); this is not the case in man. < The parallelism between psychological and morphological development in the animal world, in any case when it proceeds along pure lines. >

2. In the animal world – development along pure lines. Adaptive development already proceeds according to the system principle < Man cannot be distinguished by a single feature (intellect, will), but in principle by his relation to reality. >

3. The intellect of Köhler’s apes is in the realm of the instinct. Two aspects that distinguish it: (a) the intellect does not restructure the system of behavior, (b) there is no tool, the tool has no meaning, no objective meaning either. The stimulation remains instinctive (“A tool requires abstraction.”).

Buytendijk: The animal does not detach itself from the situation, is not consciously aware of it.

The animal differs from man because its consciousness is organized in another way. “Man differs from the animal by his consciousness.”

James:In animalsIn man

(Gestalt psychology) [Our difference from structural psychology: structural psychology is a naturalistic psychology, just like reflexology. Meaning and structure are often identified in this psychology.]

5. “Inside”

1. A Sign-Based [Semicheskyjl Analysis in the Strict Sense

Each word has meaning; what is the meaning of a word? – Meaning does not coincide with logical meaning (nonsense has meaning). What are the characteristics of our statement of the problem? – Speech has been considered as the clothing of thought (the Würzburg school) or a habit (behaviorism). When meaning was studied, it was studied either (a) from the associationist viewpoint, i.e., meaning was the reminder of the thing, or (b) from the viewpoint of what goes on inside us (phenomenologically) in the perception of word meanings (Watt[2]).

[Speech is not essential for thinking – Würzburg; speech is equal to thinkingthe behaviorists.]

The constant claim in all authors: the meaning of all words is fixed, meaning does not develop.

The change of words has been examined:

in linguistics – as the development of the word; the common character is the abstract character, this is the linguistic meaning, not the psychological one;

in psychology (Paulhan); meaning remains frozen; it is the sense that changes. The sense of the word is equal to all the psychological processes elicited by the given word. Neither here do we see development or movement, for the principle of sense formation remains the same. Paulhan broadens the concept of “sense”;

in psychological linguistics and in psychology the change of meaning by the context was examined (metaphorical meaning, ironic meaning, etc.).

In all these theories (+ W. Stern) the development of meaning is given as the starting point which terminates the process as well.

(Stern: the child discovers the nominative function. This remains the constant principle of the relation between sign and meaning. Development in Stern is reduced to the broadening of vocabulary, to the development of grammar and syntax, to the broadening or tightening of meaning. But the principle remains the same.)

“At the basis of the analysis was always the claim that meaning is constant, i.e., that the relation of the thought to the word remains constant.”

Meaning is the path from the thought to the word.” < Meaning is not the sum of all the psychological operations which stand behind the word. Meaning is something more specific-it is the internal structure of the sign operation. It is what is lying between the thought and the word. Meaning is not equal to the word, not equal to the thought. This disparity is revealed by the fact that their lines of development do not coincide. >

2. From External Speech to Inner Speech

a. External Speech

What does it mean to discover meaning?

In speech we may distinguish the semiotic [semicheskyj] and the phasic sides; they are connected by a relation of unity but not identity. The word is not simply the substitute for the thing. For example, Ingenieros’ experiments with “meanings which are present.”

The proof. The first word is phasically a word but semiotically [semicheskyj] it is a sentence.

Development proceeds: phasically from the isolated word to the sentence, to the subordinate clause, semiotically [semicheskyj] from the sentence to the name. i.e. , “the development of the semiotic [semicheskyj] side of speech does not go in parallel with (does not coincide with) the development of its phasic side.” [The development of the phasic side of speech runs ahead of the development of its semiotic [semicheskyj] side.]

“Logic and grammar do not coincide.” Neither in thought nor in speech do the psychological predicate and subject and the grammatical predicate and subject coincide. < “The mind’s grammar.” It was thought that the phasic aspect was the stamp of the mind on speech. > There are two syntaxes – the semantic one and the phasic one.

Gelb: the grammar of thinking and the grammar of speech.

The grammar of speech does not coincide with the grammar of thought.”

[What kind of changes are provided by the psychopathological material? (a) a person may speak awkwardly ...; (b) the speaker himself doesn’t know what he wants to say; (c) the limits of language are hindering (a conscious, realized divergence); (d) grammatical competition.]

[The example from Dostoyevsky (“Diary of a writer”).]

Thus: the semiotic [semicheskyj] and phasic sides of speech do not coincide.

Notes of Vygotsky’s Speech on the Occasion of Luria’s Talk

[The shortcoming of Lévy-Bruhl is that he takes speech for something constant. This leads him to paradoxes. If only we accept that the meanings and their combinations (syntax) are different from ours, then all absurdities disappear. The same with the investigations into aphasia – phoneme and meaning are not distinguished.]

< Earlier we carried out our analysis in the plane of behavior and not in the plane of consciousness -hence the abstract nature of our conclusions. (Now) most important for us is the development of meanings. For example, the similarity between the external structure of the sign operations in aphasics, schizophrenics, idiots, and primitives. But the semiotic analysis reveals that their inner structure, their meanings are different (the problem of semiotic aphasia). >

Meaning is not the same as thought expressed in a word.

In speech the semiotic [semicheskyj] and phasic sides do not coincide: thus, phasically the development of speech proceeds from the word to the phrase, but semiotically [semicheskyj] the child begins with the phrase [cf. the merging of words in the phrases of illiterates].

Neither do the logical and syntactical coincide. An example: “The clock fell” – syntactically here “clock” is the subject, “fell” the predicate. But when it is said in reply to the question “What happened?”; “What fell?,” then logically “fell” is the subject and “clock” is the subject (i.e., what is new). Another example: “My brother has read this book” – the logical emphasis can be on each word.

[Speech without judgment in cases of microcephaly, etc.]

The thought which the person wants to express neither coincides with the phasical nor with the semiotical [semicheskyj] side of speech. An example: the thought “I couldn’t help it” can be expressed in the meanings: “I wanted to dust it”; “I did not touch it”; “The clock fell of itself,” etc. Neither does “I couldn’t help it” itself absolutely express a thought (is not identical with it?); this phrase itself has its semiotic syntax.

The thought is a cloud from which speech is shed in drops.

The thought has another structure besides its verbal expression. The thought cannot be directly expressed in the word.

(Stanislavsky: behind the text lies a hidden meaning.) All speech has an ulterior motive. All speech is allegory. [In what does this ulterior motive consist? Uspensky’s peasant petitioner says: “Our sort does not have language.”]

But a thought is not something ready-made which must be expressed. The thought strives, fulfills some function and work. This work of the thought is the transition from the feeling of the task-via the formation of meaning-to the unfolding of the thought itself.

[Semiotically [semicheskyj] “the clock has fallen” stands to the corresponding thought as the semantic connection in mediated memorization stands to what needs to be memorized.]

The thought is completed in the word and not just expressed in it.

A thought is an internally mediated process. < It is the path from a vague wish to the mediated expression through meaning, more correctly, not to its expression but to the perfection of the thought in the word. >

Inner speech exists already primordially (?).

There is no sign without meaning. The formation of meaning is the main function of the sign. Meaning is everywhere where there is a sign. This is the internal aspect of the sign. But in consciousness there is also something which does not mean anything.

[The] Würzburg approach consisted in the attempt to fight one’s way to the thought. The task of psychology is to study not only these clots, but also their mediation, i.e., to study how these clots act, how the thought is completed in the word. < It is incorrect to think (as did the Würzburgians) that the task of psychology is to investigate these clouds which did not shed their water. >

b. Inner Speech

In inner speech the noncoincidence of the semantic and phasic sides is still more acute.

What is inner speech?

(1) Speech minus the sign (i.e., everything that precedes phonation). < We must distinguish between unspoken speech and inner speech (Here Jackson and Head were mistaken). >

(2) The pronunciation of words in thought (verbal memory – Charcot). Here the theory of types of inner speech coincides with types of ideas (of memory). It is, as it were, the preparation of external speech.

(3) The modern (our) conception of inner speech.

Inner speech has an entirely different structure than external speech. It has another relation between the phasic and the semiotic [semicheskyj] aspects.

Inner speech is abstract in two respects: (a) it is abstract in relation to all vocal speech i.e., it reproduces only its semasiologized phonetic characteristics (for example: three r’s in the word rrrevolution ... ), and (b) it is a-grammatical; each of its words is predicative. It has a different grammar from the grammar of semiotic external speech: in inner speech the meanings are interconnected in a different way than in external speech; the merging in inner speech proceeds along the lines of agglutination.

[The agglutination of words is possible due to the inner agglutination.] < Idioms are most widely spread in inner speech. >

The influence of sense: the word in a context becomes both restricted and enriched; the word absorbs the sense of the contexts = agglutination. The next word contains its predecessor.

“Inner speech is built predicatively.”

[The difficulty of translation depends on the complex path of the transitions from one plane to another: thought → meanings → phasic external speech.

Written speech [The difficulties of written speech: there is no intonation, no interlocutor. It represents the symbolization of symbols; motivation is more difficult.

Written speech stands in another relation to inner speech, it develops later than inner speech, it is the most grammatical. But it stands closer to inner speech than external speech; it is associated with meanings and passes by external speech.]

Summary: in inner speech we meet with a new form of speech where everything is different.

c. Thought

The thought also has independent existence; it does not coincide with the meanings..

We have to find a certain construction of the meanings in order to be able to express a thought [text and ulterior motive].

Clarification. This can he clarified with the example of amnesia. One can forget:

(a) the motive, intention;
(b) what exactly? (the thought?);
(c) the meanings through which one wished to express something;
(d) the words.

The thought is completed in the word.” The difficulties of the completion. < The impossibility of expressing a thought directly. The levels of amnesia-the levels of mediation (transition) from the thought to the word-are levels of mediation of the word by meaning. >

Understanding. Real understanding lies in the penetration into the motives of the interlocutor.

The sense of the words is changed by the motive. Therefore, the ultimate explanation lies in motivation; this is especially obvious in infancy < The investigation by Katz of children’s utterances. The work of Stolz (psychologist - linguist - mail censor in war time); the analysis of the letters of prisoners of war about hunger. >

Conclusions from this part. Word meaning is not a simple thing given once and for all (against Paulhan).

Word meaning is always a generalization; behind the word is always a process of generalization -meaning develops with generalization. The development of meaning = the development of generalization!

The principles of generalization may change. “The structure of generalization is changed in development” (develops, becomes stratified, the process is realized differently).

[The process of the realization of the thought in meaning is a complex phenomenon which proceeds inward “from motives to speaking” (?).]

In meaning it is always a generalized reality that is given (L. S.).

6. In Breadth and Afar

[The basic questions]: (1) word meaning germinates in consciousness; what does this mean for consciousness itself?; (2) as a result of what and how does meaning change?

[First answers]: (1) the word that germinates in consciousness changes all relationships and processes; (2) word meaning itself develops depending on changes in consciousness.

The Role of Meaning in the Life of Consciousness

“To speak = to present a theory.”

“The world of objects develops with the world of names” (L.S. – J.S. Mill).

“The constancy and categorical objectivity of the object is the meaning of the object” [Lenin about distinguishing oneself from the world]. < This meaning, this objectivity is already given in perception. >

‘All our perception has meaning.” All meaningless things we perceive (as meaningful), attaching meaning to it.

The meaning of the object is not the meaning of the word. “The object has meaning” – this means that it enters into communication.

To know the meaning is to know the singular as the universal.

The processes of human consciousness have their meaning due to the fact that they are given a name, i.e., are being generalized” (not in the sense as with the word. L.S.).

Meaning is inherent in the sign.

Sense is what enters into meaning (the result of the meaning) but is not consolidated behind the sign.

The formation of sense is the result, the product of meaning. Sense is broader than meaning.

Consciousness is (1) knowledge in connection; (2) consciousness (social).

[The first questions of children are never questions about names; they are questions about the sense of the object.] < The meaningful is not imply the structural (against Gestalt theory). >

Consciousness as a whole has a semantic structure. We judge consciousness by its semantic structure, for sense, the structure of consciousness, is the relation to the external world.

New semantic connections develop in consciousness (shame, pride – hierarchy ... the dream of the Kaffir, Masha Bolkonskaya prays when another would think ... ).

The sense-creating activity of meanings leads to a certain semantic structure of consciousness itself.

Speech was thus incorrectly considered only in its relation to thinking. Speech produces changes in consciousness. “Speech is a correlate of consciousness, not of thinking

“Thinking is no gateway through which speech enters into consciousness” (L. S.). Speech is a sign for the communication between consciousnesses. The relation between speech and consciousness is a psychophysical problem < And at the same time transgresses the boundaries of consciousness. >

The first communications of the child, just like early praxis, are not intellectual < Nobody tried to prove that the first communication is intellectual. > It is not at all true that the child is only speaking when he thinks.

By its appearance speech fundamentally changes consciousness.” What moves the meanings, what determines their development? “The cooperation of consciousnesses.” The process of alienation of consciousness.

Consciousness is prone to splintering. Consciousness is prone to merging. < They are essential for consciousness. >

How does generalization develop? How does the structure of consciousness change?

Either: man has resort to the sign; the sign gives birth to meaning; meaning sprouts in consciousness. It is not like that.

Meaning is determined by he relationships = by consciousness,

by the activity of consciousness. “The structure of meaning is determined by the systemic structure of consciousness.” Consciousness has a systemic structure. The systems are stable and characterize consciousness.


“Semiotic analysis is the only adequate method for the study of the systemic and semantic structure of consciousness.” Just like the structural method is an adequate method for the investigation of animal consciousness.

Our word in psychology: away from superficial psychology – in consciousness, being and phenomenon are not equal. But we also oppose depth psychology. Our psychology is a peak psychology (does not determine the “depths” of the personality but its “peaks”).

The path toward internal hidden developments as a tendency in modern science (chemistry toward the structure of the atom, the physiology of digestion toward vitamins, etc). In psychology we first attempted to understand logical memory as the tying of a knot, now as semantic memorization. Depth psychology claims that

things are what they always have been. The unconscious does not develop-this is a great discovery. The dream shines with reflected light, just like the moon.

This is clear from the way we understand development. As a transformation of what was given initially? As a novel form? In that case most important is what developed last!

“In the beginning was the thing (and not: the thing was in the beginning), in the end came the word, and this is the most important” (L. S.). What is the meaning of what has been said? “For me this knowledge is enough,” i.e., now it is enough that the problem has been stated.


(From the preparatory work for the theses for the debate in the years 1933-1934. Record of Vygotsky’s speeches on the 5th and 9th of December, 1933).

The central fact of our psychology is the fact of mediation.

Communication and generalization. The internal side of mediation is revealed in the double function of the sign: (1) communication, (2) generalization. For: all communication requires generalization.

Communication is also possible directly, but mediated communication is communication in signs, here generalization is necessary. (“Each word (speech) already generalizes.”)

A fact: for the child communication and generalization do not coincide: that is why communication is direct here.

Intermediate is the pointing gesture. The gesture is a sign that can mean anything.

A law: the form of generalization corresponds to the form of communication. “Communication and generalization are internally connected.”

People communicate with meanings insofar as these meanings develop.

The schema here is: not person-thing (Stern), not person-person (Piaget). But: person-thing-person.

Generalization. What is generalization?

Generalization is the exclusion from visual structures and the inclusion in thought structures, in semantic structures.

Meaning and the system of functions are internally connected.

Meaning does not belong to thinking but to consciousness as a whole.


1. Selz, Otto (1881-1944). German psychologist. Investigated the problems of thinking.

2. Watt, Henri (1879-1925). English psychologist. Representative of the Würzburg school.